The Terrifying Consequences of General McChrystal’s New Rules

by Joshua Foust on 8/11/2009 · 8 comments

Last month, I noted a terrible paradox in the new rules coming out of General McChrystal’s command:

There are also concerns from soldiers about whether or not it is prudent to develop a reputation for withdrawing from such firefights. After all, you cannot fight a war — even a counterinsurgency — without fighting or killing the enemy…

Gen. McChrystal’s directive, therefore, is fundamentally contradictory: It requires U.S. troops to protect undefined population centers, unless threatened by the very forces that endanger them.

Even more ironic is the subtext of Gen. McChrystal’s new directive, which speaks not to protecting the people of Afghanistan, but to protecting the Western troops inside of it. Withdrawing from a populated area when fired upon does not “protect” it any more than dropping bombs on it does. Afghans want America’s protection, not necessarily its absence — and confusing the two will make the situation worse.

Tim Lynch writes about a recent RPG ambush in Nangahar Province and notices: since McChrystal got put in charge, the militants have become much more violent:

There is a problem with this whole scenario and that is how the hell do a squad of Taliban move over the Tor Ghar mountains, dig in and ambush a fuel tanker, break contact when the Americans show up and withdraw back over the mountains without being hit by 300 to 400 rounds of 30mm cannon fire by an Apache? I think I found out the answer inadvertently when I was down south with the Marines last week. The Marines are shooting rockets – a lot of them and I was chatting up the 3 who told me he has been meeting with spacemen. Pray tell why? I asked and he told me the new generation of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) goes so high that you have to de-conflict the missile track with satellites and other stuff hanging out in space. I then asked why shoot rockets and he said because we cannot get clearance to use Tac Air fast enough given the new ROE put in place by Gen McChrystal.

It seems to me that the Taliban understands this ROE change and know that as long as they are operating near civilians we will not whack them. How else do you explain 20 armed guys moving several kilometers in broad daylight through the densely populated, strategically important Kabul river delta? A year ago there would have been so many attack birds stacked over these deadbeats they would have needed an airborne controller to keep them from hitting each other.

This cannot be considered good news and it will make it much easier for the Taliban to actually backup some of the BS they have been spouting lately about cutting the roads during the upcoming presidential elections. Air-power is how we fight when we want to be asymmetrical and we are good at it. However our FOB bound operational mindset has created opportunities for Afghan score settling which is how we have been tricked into bombing wedding parties or warning the only physician in Nuristan to flee his clinic and then killing him and all the nurses and midwife too as they pulled out in their vehicle. Due to our over reliance on technology and local informants we have created a more level playing field for the bad guys who clearly understand they are, for now, safe from our ground attack aviation assets. Just in time for the elections too….unbelievable.

I agree, Tim. That actually is quite unbelievable. And that is a nice way of summarizing precisely why I have become so deeply pessimistic of our ability to actually do the right thing over there. We refuse to learn from our mistakes, and we refuse to repeat our successes. It really is unreal.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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shingul August 12, 2009 at 12:07 am

There’s a great deal of hyperbole and incorrect information in this piece and it should not be used to make any sort of generalizations. The MLRS system while able to fire both rockets and missiles is most certainly not an appropriate weapons system to target 20 guys scurrying through a field and would raise similar concerns in using airpower. It is an area weapons system when employing rockets and can take out an entire grid square (1km x 1 km). The author says the Marines mentioned using rockets which most certainly would not require deconfliction with satellites (they might’ve been having some fun with him). Further, because rockets dont have guidance systems, you could effectively level any populated areas hosting these squirters. Its also unthinkable that Marines would employ MLRS without going through a similarly stringent approval process roughly similar to ECAS/TAC Air due to the collateral potential/indirect nature of the system. The author also links Apaches with fixed wing support in terms of clearance processes which is historically incorrect (although Im not there now so can’t say definitively). Fixed wing support/clearance can be time consuming because of the blast/frag capacity resulting from the ordnance, distance between the pilot and ground, and communications challenges. The problems involved in separating insurgents from civilians in a tactical situation is not new and airpower used in such situations is very precarious. The author seems to end his piece by saying we’ve granted advantages to the Taliban through our overuse of technology/informants, and now that we’re placing more constraints on air (technology), this is also hurting us. These two points should’ve been separated rather than merged into an awkward sentence (what’s the correct solution then pray tell?). GEN. McChrystal almost certainly made the right call in limiting the use of Tac Air, as the military is armed with several other assets that can engage “foot mobiles”. In COIN as a rule of thumb and barring an emergency, you use the lowest level direct fire weapon systems available. I think the author is also poorly representing the issue of disengaging from fire fights in populated areas without understanding the details. All of the above is available open source, ie fact check.

GMLRS August 13, 2009 at 8:46 am

My unit has been firing GMLRS in theater since Oct 2006. The old “duck hunter” belief that MLRS is a grid smasher or too much of a CDE concern have long since been torn down. Air clearance remains our biggest delay in wiping out any assigned target. Rockets don’t have guidance systems?

Might want to bone up on your munitions knowledge, and current TTPs in theater.

Joshua Foust August 12, 2009 at 5:57 am

I’ll just caution that with saying the new MLRS systems actually are guided, and like the new XM982 Excalibur artillery systems frighteningly accurate.

BruceR August 12, 2009 at 8:18 am

With respect to Tim, all armies operate this way. If you’ve got integral support (your own artillery) within range, you don’t call on the air guys. It’s just simpler. So long as you have eyes on to adjust the fire and the system is reasonably accurate (regular HE shells are fine, you don’t need Excaliburs) that’s always your first option. Increasingly we’re going to see ANA artillery in the same role as they grow in competence. Protocols aside, it’s easier and better to trust the FOO on the ground who’s been there for days or months, than to have to explain the situation to someone coming in fast from the Gulf.

It’s when you can’t use that for whatever reason that you need attack hels or fast air. The previous poster saying one uses the “lowest level direct fire system available” is neglecting the default resort to integral indirect systems as your first-resort.

David M August 12, 2009 at 10:06 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/12/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

b August 12, 2009 at 1:32 pm

agree with shimgul: dumb post

shingul August 13, 2009 at 7:33 pm

My original point was that whether one is using Tac Air, MLRS, FA, or any other such non-line of sight asset, you are going to encounter issues related to civilian collateral. I dont care how precise the system, you almost always need someone on the ground to call it in and deconflict whats going on around the target. Thus, caution is not a bad thing.
And on side note, Im aware GMLRS can fire specially guided rockets, although, traditionally most rockets do NOT have guidance systems (ie the M26, previously standard rocket munition for MLRS). Although that might be more and more a thing of the past. This from Army FM 6-60 MLRS operations: “The MLRS rocket follows a ballistic, free-flight (unguided) trajectory to the target. The propulsion provided by the solid propellant rocket motor is the same for each rocket, so rocket range is a function of LLM elevation. The four stabilizer fins at the aft end of the rocket provide in-flight stability by maintaining a constant counterclockwise spin. The initial spin is imparted to the rocket through spin rails mounted on the inner wall of the launch tube.”

GMLRS August 14, 2009 at 4:07 pm


Agree with you on previous engagements, say pre 2005, but with one of the lowest CDEs now in the DoD inventory, especially at range, and with the all-weather capability it is becoming the weapon of choice for an array of targets including those with TICs. By the way, FM 6-60 was replaced in in August 2008 with FM 3.09.60 since it was some 12 years old at the time.

The description of the M26 rocket is accurate, but can’t say I’ve heard of one being fired lately in any capacity.

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